Saturday, May 10, 2008

May 10, 1940 and our debt to Churchill

We must never forget May 10, 1940 and our debt to Sir Winston Churchill.

At 5:30 AM that day, Churchill, then eligible for an old age pension, was awakened in his bedroom at the Admiralty. Germany had just launched air and ground attacks on the Low Countries and France. It was not yet certain whether they were probing actions or the start of a major offensive.

Churchill immediately began gathering intelligence. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he called a 6 AM meeting with the Secretaries of State for War and for Air to assess the situation and coordinate strategy.

About an hour later he met with a special military planning committee. Once that meeting was over, he walked to 10 Downing Street to attend the first of three Cabinet meetings that day.

By the time the third Cabinet meeting began in the late afternoon, the British knew the Germans had launched a major offensive.

Most of the meeting was taken up with military questions, but at its end Prime Minister Chamberlain informed his Cabinet colleagues that he did not have sufficient support to form what the crisis called for: a government of national unity.

Therefore, after the meeting, he would go to the palace and submit his resignation to the King George VI. He did not say whom he would recommend the King ask to form a new Government.

The Cabinet Ministers were expecting Chamberlain’s announcement, and they knew he would give King George Churchill’s name.

Later that evening Churchill was called to the palace. The only person to accompany him from the Admiralty was his principal bodyguard, Detective-Inspector Walter Thompson. Churchill didn't say why they were going to the palace.

Thompson later wrote they made the trip back to the Admiralty “in complete silence.” Churchill didn’t speak until after he had gotten out of the car :

”You know why I have been to Buckingham Palace, Thompson?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered, and congratulated him. He looked pleased, but he was tense and strained.

I went on: “I am very pleased that you have at last become Prime Minister, sir, but I wish that the position had come your way in better times, for you have undertaken an enormous task.”

Gravely he replied: “God alone knows how great it is. All I hope is that it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is, but we can only do our best.” Tears came into his eyes, and as he turned away he muttered something to himself.

Then he set his jaw, and with a look of determination, mastering all emotion, he entered the side door of the Admiralty and began to climb the stairs.
Martin Gilbert’s, Winston S. Churchill: Finest Hour, 1939-1941, provides a detailed account of the events mentioned here. See especially Chapters 15 & 16. Thompson's recollection is found in Tom Hickman’s Churchill’s Bodyguard. (pgs. 90-91)


Anonymous said...

A gentleman and a scholar who knew that tough times called for men and women of character to stand firm. I wish I could say that such people still exist - definitely not in Durham.